We all know that food is meant to provide our bodies with nutrition and sustenance, to give us energy and warmth and life. But how do our food choices affect our minds? Food can be divided into two categories: the real food we eat on a physical level, and the food we consume through impressions, such as that we ingest through books, television and music. Both types of food must be digested and assimilated and can have a profound effect on our thinking and behavior.
Ayurveda encourages the consumption of sattvic foods. Sattva refers to the higher qualities of life, harmony, balance, peace and awareness. The beautiful things. The things many of us aspire to. When we feed ourselves sattva, we are encouraging the development of sattva in ourselves, in our minds and in our lives.
When referring to foods, we can think of sattvic foods as the ones with the most prana, the most life force. Fresh vegetables, especially those that are picked directly from one’s own garden, are dripping with prana. Think of snapping beans off of your bean plant and eating them directly, the life and the energy are so fresh. If you don’t have a garden, that’s okay, organic, locally grown vegetables are a great choice, still full of prana. A truly sattvic diet is one that is vegetarian. Interestingly, approximately 35% of the Indian population, where Ayurveda was born, is vegetarian, compared to the 3.2% of American vegetarians, this is quite a large number.
Why must sattvic mean vegetarian? As I mentioned before, sattvic qualities are those higher qualities; sattva is rooted in ahimsa which is defined as non-violence or non-harming. Naturally meat would not fall into the category of ahimsa simply because of the way it was processed. Meat is not high in prana, especially when we think of the time in between processing the meat, storing it, shipping it, refrigerating it and then finally eating it. By the time it gets to our plates, it is definitely no longer fresh. Ayurveda also tells us that animal qualities and tendencies can be absorbed into our own bodies and minds thorough its consumption.
I know a lot of people, yoga and Ayurvedic practitioners and other health conscious folks included, who are not willing to give up meat eating completely and commit to a totally vegetarian diet. The recommendation then is to make careful choices. Choose meat that has been raised locally whenever possible and in the most humane conditions possible. Stay away from processed meats that contain a lot of harmful chemical preservatives or meat that has been raised in the unhealthy conditions of the factory farm.
Ayurveda & Milk
In the yogic traditions of India, milk is considered a highly sattvic food and is taken often by those who are following a spiritual path. However, in India the cows are treated in a much more humane way than the milk producing cows of America. Most cows in the U.S. are treated similarly to the animals in a meat producing factory farm. Ayurveda considers milk to be a medicine and uses milk and milk based products such as ghee and yogurt to help increase resistance to disease. There is some controversy about whether milk is indeed good for us and I believe we need to consider that commercially produced and pasteurized milk is lacking in the nutrition that the carefully treated cows of India are producing. Milk that comes from a local dairy, if you have access to one, would have the most sattvic product. I have the good fortune of living next to a dairy farm and enjoy the freshest raw milk and cheeses. I have even met the cows.
Ayurveda teaches us that the food we choose exemplifies our current state of mind. At the same time, it influences our state of mind. This also applies to the food we eat with our eyes and ears. What television shows do we choose to watch? What books are we reading? Are we spending our time indoors looking at the computer screen or outside in the fresh air taking in all the sights and sounds of nature? These choices affect the quality of our minds just as our food choices do. The most pranic rich food we can feed ourselves is air, so it stands to reason that time spent in nature will have a positive influence on the health of our physical bodies as well as the health of our mind. When we feed ourselves violent movies, or read materials that encourage controversy and gossip, we are ingesting and digesting these experiences. Negative experiences can cause indigestion just as disagreeable food can.
Next time you make yourself something to eat or are deciding on a TV show to watch, try looking at it from an Ayurvedic perspective by asking yourself, “Is this food sattvic in nature? Is it of the highest, life producing quality? Does this experience exemplify the non-harming, compassionate qualities of ahimsa?” And remember with each choice we make in the direction of sattva, the more sattvic qualities we nurture in ourselves.